Aesthetics & The Politics of “Philosophical” Respectability

Christy Mag Uidhir has recently posted some observations and concerns about the relative absence of aestheticians (faculty with an AOS in aesthetics) in “top” philosophy doctoral programs.

What these numbers suggest is that the very best philosophy PhD programs in the United States currently have little to no research interest in Aesthetics and as such, also that quite likely neither shall their future graduates.

So basically Uidhir is concerned that due to the lack of faculty teaching doctoral seminars and supervising dissertations in aesthetics, the subfield is slowly dwindling to its eventual death, at least as a recognized AOS.

What I want to consider in this post is: why care about that recognition? Why should people working in “aesthetics” or the philosophy of art play the politics of philosophical respectability?
Ultimately, I think it makes sense to play that game IFF you’re already advantaged in some important way–if you’re in an elite institution already, if you’re already working in mainstream analytic (and not continental, feminist, critical philosophy of race, non-Western, etc.), and so on. However, politics of respectability are always conservative; they reaffirm the authority of dominant norms by seeking approbation in their terms. Aesthetics’ quest for recognition as “real” philosophy hampers genuinely innovative, revolutionary work in the field…sort of like how “Christian” versions of metal or punk or whatever traditionally shocking youth musical subculture always sound derivative. Nirvana didn’t happen by trying to sound like Bon Jovi or Poison (they were actually trying to sound like the Pixies, who rose to fame only after Cobain and crew did).

I put “top” in scare quotes above because he uses the Leiter Report (or the Philosophical Gourmet Report, more properly) to define the bounds of professional philosophy. Which is basically like using Billboard’s Hot 100 or album charts to define “music”–it gives you a good picture about the most mainstream slice of the industry, but a horrible overall representation of what music is being made, shared, performed, and enjoyed. If you’re an artist or fan in a subgenre like minimal techno, industrial, hyphy, cumbia, math rock, queercore…you name it, really, then the Billboard charts aren’t really meaningful gauges of what happens in your genre.

If “aesthetics” as a subfield is work in the philosophy of art(s) done in the style(s) of mainstream (“analytic,” though I hate that term because I think it’s increasingly dated) Leiter top 50 “philosophy,” then it is probably a dwindling subfield, as Uidhir suggests. But there’s TONS of work in the philosophy of art(s) done in other styles of philosophy. I went to a non-Leiter ranked continental program (DePaul), and there were, when I was taking classes, at least three faculty with whom I took courses ON aesthetics (Tina Chanter, Darrell Moore, Elizabeth Milian), and several other faculty who loosely work in aesthetics/the philosophy of art. SUNY Stonybrook, a longtime top continental program, has a whole MA in Philosophy & Art. There’s also a lot of work in aesthetics/phil of art in OOO/SR. There’s also lots of philosophical work in aesthetics & art(s)  in feminist theory and the critical philosophy of race, though lots of that work happens outside “philosophy” departments proper. So philosophical work on art and aesthetics is thriving, just not in the Leiter top 50.

The subfield can respond in 2 ways: (a) redoubling their efforts at a politics of respectability, or (b) critiquing and offering alternatives to the philosophical norms and trends that marginalize our work. Notice the shift in pronouns I used: “they” identifies the politics-of-respectability players, “our” the part of the subfield I identify with. As someone who’s continentally trained and works in feminist/critical race theory and pop music, that politics of philosophical respectability has always been unavailable to me. I can expect Leiter top 50-style recognition for my work in the same way that Ellen Allien can expect Psy/Gangnam Style-size YouTube plays & global chart performance (and she’s a pretty hugely important techno artist!).

And you know what avoiding “philosophical” respectability and recognition has earned me? Recognition beyond a hyper-narrow intellectual elite. My work appears in interdisciplinary scholarly venues, and, more importantly (at least in my view), in public, for the public to discuss. As a scholar I get to participate in conversations with smart, committed people both within and outside the ‘academy.’ I feel like my work matters in a way that it wouldn’t if I tailored it for Leiter top-50-style audiences…especially because I work in aesthetics and the philosophy of art. Oh, and it’s also earned me tenure (which also means I got a tt job at some point)…not that tenure and tt jobs aren’t also dwindling. So another thing to consider is: because many/most philosophy PhDs can expect to be contingent and/or alternative academics, perhaps preparation for Leiter top 50-style respectability shouldn’t be the goal? In other words, philosophical respectability is not a guarantee of a job, because there just are no jobs anyway. (Which is somewhat false: there are jobs–DePaul alumni get hired every year to tt jobs, just not at elite/”respectable” institutions. And they get hired b/c they can teach “cool” classes, e.g., in film or aesthetics or technology, that draw undergrads to philosophy.)  Perhaps the goal of philosophical practice shouldn’t be “respectability,” but something else? Independent musicians often talk about contributing to a scene/subculture as the measure of their work, not “sales” (and who sells records anyway these days?).

Politics of respectability are generally means of further advantaging the already somewhat advantaged. If you’re not already advantaged, and/or you find those advantages intellectually, politically, and/or socially problematic, then you should avoid the respectability game as much as possible…Which is why I don’t think we should be particularly troubled by Uidhir’s findings.